Children deserve lawyers of their own, ABA says

August 03, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

Children, whether they are the subject of a nasty custody battle like Baby Jessica or the victims of abusive parents, should be provided with their own lawyers to ensure their rights are protected and their views heard in court, the American Bar Association has decided.

In a special report, the country's top organization of lawyers is expected to announce today a myriad of proposals aimed at improving the welfare of America's children, including their right to effective and quality legal representation.

"Children deserve the same type of aggressive lawyering that lawyers give to corporate and adult clients," said Howard Davidson, of the bar association's Center on Children and the Law.

"We need to make sure children get legal help before their cases get enmeshed in the court system. But when they do get involved in the court, they need high quality representation."

Entitled "America's Children at Risk: A National Agenda for Legal Action," the report is the work of a special panel convened by ABA President J. Michael McWilliams and headed by a former federal appeals judge, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.

Attorney General Janet L. Reno, a proponent of child welfare issues while a Florida prosecutor, will help unveil the report. The group's findings also will be presented to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. McWilliams said the panel's work was aimed at the crisis facing today's children, a crisis that produces statistics such as these: More than one in five American children live in poverty, guns kill or injure 40 children every day, 8 million American children lack any health care coverage, 3 million children last year were reported abused or neglected.

"If these trends keep going, and there's no reason to think they won't, the whole fabric of our society just disintegrates. You don't have an educated work force. You don't have a society that respects the law. You don't have well fed and healthy children," said Mr. McWilliams.

The report will focus on a myriad of issues, including the right of children to be represented, the importance of training attorneys to properly represent children, the need to quickly resolve court matters involving children and other juvenile justice and welfare matters.

Among its recommendations is the creation of statewide, unified family courts to handle matters related to children and youth.

In custody cases, for example, states vary on whether a child is entitled to have his own attorney.

"As a general rule, where kids aren't represented before the court then the issues don't get squarely focused on the kid and what's best for the kid," said Jay Elliott, a Columbia, S.C., attorney who chairs the custody committee of the ABA's family law section.

"That's what is supposed to be the polar star of custody cases. That's supposed to be the guiding light in custody cases. It almost always happens that adults . . . come to court focused on custody out of self interest."

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